Perhaps you’ve seen the Seinfeld episode in which lawyer Jackie Chiles encourages Kramer to sue over a cup of hot coffee that spilled onto his pants after a failed attempt of sneaking it into a movie theater. Kramer walks into the scene and jovially remarks, “I spoke to a lawyer. We’re suing for millions!” Jerry asks, “Suing? What for?” Kramer responds, “My coffee was too hot!” “It was supposed to be hot,” Jerry says. Quips Kramer, “Not that hot.

If you don’t watch television, you’ve likely heard it on the radio. Famed country music artist Toby Keith cited the hot coffee litigation in his 2009 hit, “American Ride.” Listing different examples of what he perceived as injustices in the present-day United States, Keith sang, “Plasma gettin’ bigger / Jesus gettin’ smaller / Spill a cup of coffee / Make a million dollars.” The song went on to peak at number one on Billboard’s list of “Hot Country Songs.”

If you’re totally out of touch with pop culture, you’ve surely seen it in the news. Hours after the verdict, the tort reform lobby and media machine cranked out story-after-story about the evils of the runaway American justice system. The headlines practically wrote themselves: an elderly lady carelessly spilled a cup of hot coffee on herself and was awarded a windfall of millions of dollars as a result.

Corporate Misinformation and Tort Reform
The facts have always been in plain sight, but thanks to a powerful corporate public relations campaign and a complacent and sensationalist media, they’ve been cast aside in favor of a call for change.

“This story isn’t about McDonald’s or about Mrs. Liebeck per se, but about the media’s failure to do its job in a measured way,” Ms. Liebeck’s lawyer, Ken Wagner, told theNew York Times in it’s article titled: “Storm Still Brews over Scalding Coffee.” “The way the political winds were blowing, politicians seized on this and they don’t do any fact checking. We’ve all lost out in this because of the basic fact that the media didn’t do its job.”

The Real Facts
The world’s most famous cup of coffee was spilled on February 28, 1992 in Albuquerque, NM. Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old grandmother, was being driven by her grandson and had just ordered a cup of coffee at the McDonald’s drive through. After she received her order, her grandson pulled forward and parked so that Ms. Liebeck could mix in her cream and sugar.

Liebeck held the cup of coffee between her knees, but when she pulled off the cup’s lid, the entire cup of coffee spilled into her lap. Her thick clothing absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, causing third-degree burns throughout her inner thighs. As a result, Ms. Liebeck spent eight days in the hospital and was forced to undergo emergency skin grafts to repair the burns. Throughout her hospital stay, she lost twenty pounds.

Before a lawsuit was ever filed, Liebeck contacted McDonald’s and requested compensation for her injuries, which now totaled more than $11,000. McDonald’s countered with an embarrassingly low $800 offer. As a result of this paltry offering, Liebeck was forced to file suit. Days before the trial, a mediator recommended that McDonald’s settle the suit for $250,000, yet they again balked. As a result of McDonald’s refusal of all attempts to settle the case, Liebeck was forced to take her case to trial.

At trial, it was revealed that McDonald’s stored their coffee at a much higher temperature than was considered safe. McDonald’s heated its coffee to as much as 190º, 30-50 degrees hotter than other restaurants. Doctors testified that coffee spilled at 190º would only take 2-7 seconds to cause a third-degree burn. Further, over the previous ten years, McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints about injuries sustained as a result of their coffee’s temperature.

Willful, Reckless, Malicious or Wanton Conduct
To compensate her for her injuries sustained due to McDonald’s negligence, the jury awarded Stella Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages. Based on its finding that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, reckless, malicious or wanton conduct,” the jury then awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages against McDonald’s. Punitive damages are a way that a jury punishes and deters corporate bad behavior, and the number was calculated based upon two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.

The trial court refused to grant McDonald’s request for a retrial, finding that its behavior was “callous.” The judge, however, announced that he would reduce the punitive damages award to $480,000. Before the appeals could be heard, the parties reached an out-of-court agreement for an undisclosed amount of money. As part of the settlement, McDonald’s demanded that the details be kept confidential.

A Positive Legacy
Stella Liebeck died in 2004 at the age of 91, still feeling like a helpless victim of the national media and corporate misinformation. Now that you know the real story of the “McDonald’s hot coffee case,” please honor Ms. Liebeck by sharing her story with as many people as possible.

About the Guest Author:
William E. Johnson is a preeminent trial lawyer with an established practice in West Palm Beach to serve clients in the areas of personal injury and wrongful death. With offices based at CityPlace in the heart of West Palm Beach. Mr. Johnson serves those whose lives have been affected by personal injury or wrongful death throughout the state of Florida. He has collaborated with the personal injury attorneys at Babbitt & Johnson, P.A. on personal injury and wrongful death cases.